Tourists pose for a photograph in a deserted Trafalgar Square in London on March 19, 2020, as people stay away due the novel coronavirus. Britain announced Wednesday it would be closing schools in the coming days and placing troops on standby in efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus. Image Credit: AFP

London: Boris Johnson’s government is mobilising military personnel and preparing to put London in lockdown as it battles to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The prime minister threatened to tighten restrictions on movement in the capital, which is at the centre of the outbreak, at a press conference on Wednesday. Johnson will meet London Mayor Sadiq Khan in Downing Street on Thursday to discuss the next steps, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“We’re obviously looking at the medical and scientific advice,” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told Sky News. “No decision has been made” on locking down London, he said.

Johnson, who has faced criticism for moving too slowly against the disease, is now racing to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has already killed 104 people in Britain. The virus is spreading fastest in the capital, according to the government.

As many as 10,000 extra military personnel are on standby to be deployed to support civil authorities as part of a new “Covid Support Force.” They will include people trained to drive oxygen tankers to hospitals, as well as scientists working on combating the deadly disease.

The measures are part of contingency plans to respond to requests from governments departments or civil authorities. The announcement doubles the number of troops available to help tackle the virus.

Tube stations shut

Transport for London announced the closing of 40 underground stations as it encouraged people only to make essential journeys and to leave the network of subways, buses and trains free for the use of workers vital to the effort against the pandemic.

“People should not be travelling by any means unless they really, really have to,” Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a statement. “London will get through these extraordinarily challenging times, and ensuring the capital’s critical workers can move around the city will be crucial.”

Johnson and Khan will discuss the closing of underground and mainline stations, restricting bus services and possibly closing some underground lines entirely, a person familiar with the matter said.

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Trucks wait in line on the A16 motorway near Lille on March 19, 2020, to cross the English Channel to Britain. Cross-Channel traffic has slowed down, with ferries taking half as many trucks to comply with health regulations as part of measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus epidemic. Image Credit: AFP

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government is working with airlines and airports to develop a package to help them weather the impact of the virus.

“Coronavirus is having a crippling impact on the aviation industry and we cannot allow it to force world-leading, well-run, profitable firms out of business,” he said.

Johnson’s government is also expected to publish emergency legislation on Thursday that will give it the powers to close meeting places, ban gatherings and detain people who are a danger to public health as it seeks to halt the spread of the virus.

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Failure to slow the contagion may require tighter controls on the movement of people, Johnson said on Wednesday. The government says it already has the power to keep individuals in isolation for their own safety.

“We live in a land of liberty as you know, and it’s one of the great features of our lives that we don’t tend to impose those sorts of restrictions on people,” Johnson told reporters in London. “But I have to tell you, we will rule nothing out.”

UK pulls some troops from Iraq training mission

Britain is withdrawing some of its troops from a global training mission in Iraq because of the coronavirus outbreak, the defence ministry said on Thursday.

The decision to redeploy was made because there had been a “reduced requirement for training” from the Iraqi security forces and a pause in coalition and NATO training missions.

“The Ministry of Defence has therefore decided to redeploy some of its personnel back to the United Kingdom,” it said in a statement.

Britain has been working alongside coalition partners in Iraq since 2014 to train Iraqi security forces but the programme has been “paused” for 60 days as a precaution because of COVID-19.

Key UK military personnel will remain in Iraq supporting the government in Baghdad, the coalition and UK interests, the ministry said.

Troops brought home could be redeployed elsewhere in the world, but could also be asked to support family members affected by the outbreak, which has claimed more than 100 lives in Britain.

- with inputs from AFP